Jul 312014

Book Short: Best Book Ever

Book Short:  Best Book Ever

The Hard Thing About Hard Things, by Ben Horowitz, is the best business book I’ve ever read.  Or at least the best book on management and leadership that I’ve ever read.  Period.

It’s certainly the best CEO book on the market.  It’s about 1000 times better than my book although my book is intended to be different in several ways.  I suppose they’re complementary, but if you only had time left on this planet for one book, read Ben’s first.

I’m not even going to get into specifics on it, other than that Ben does a great job of telling the LoudCloud/Opsware story in a way that shows the grit, psychology, and pain of being an entrepreneur in a way that, for me, has previously only existed in my head.

Just go buy and read the book.

Filed under: Books

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Jul 172014

The Gift of Feedback, Part IV

The Gift of Feedback, Part IV

I wrote a few weeks ago about my live 360 – the first time I’ve ever been in the room for my own review discussion.  I now have a development plan drafted coming out of the session, and having cycled it through the contributors to the review, I’m ready to go with it.  As I did in 2008, 2009, and 2011, I’m posting it here publicly.  This time around, there are three development items:

  1. Continue to spend enough time in-market.  In particular, look for opportunities to spend more time with direct clients.  There was a lot of discussion about this at my review.  One director suggested I should spend at least 20% of my time in-market, thinking I was spending less than that.  We track my time to the minute each quarter, and I spend roughly 1/3 of my time in-market.  The problem is the definition of in-market.  We have a lot of large partners (ESPs, ISPs, etc.) with whom I spend a lot of time at senior levels.  Where I spend very little time is with direct clients, either as prospects or as existing clients.  Even though, given our ASP, there isn’t as much leverage in any individual client relationship, I will work harder to engage with both our sales team and a couple of larger accounts to more deeply understand our individual client experience.
  2. Strengthen the Executive Committee as a team as well as using the EC as the primary platform for driving accountability throughout the organization.  On the surface, this sounds like “duh,” isn’t that the CEO’s job in the first place?  But there are some important tactical items underneath this, especially given that we’ve changed over half of our executive team in the last 12 months.  I need to keep my foot on the accelerator in a few specific ways:  using our new goals and metrics process and our system of record (7Geese) rigorously with each team member every week or two; being more authoritative about the goals that end up in the system in the first place to make sure my top priorities for the organization are being met; finishing our new team development plan, which will have an emphasis on organizational accountability; and finding the next opportiunity for our EC to go through a management training program as a team.
  3. Help stakeholders connect with the inherent complexity of the business.  This is an interesting one.  It started out as “make the business less complex,” until I realized that much of the competitive advantage and inherent value from our business comes fom the fact that we’ve built a series of overlapping, complex, data machines that drive unique insights for clients.  So reducing complexity may not make sense.  But helping everyone in and around the business connect with, and understand the complexity, is key.  To execute this item, there are specifics for each major stakeholder.  For the Board, I am going to experiment with a radically simpler format of our Board Book.  For Investors, Customers, and Partners, we are hard at work revising our corporate positioning and messaging.  Internally, there are few things to work on — speaking at more team/department meetings, looking for other opportunities to streamline the organization, and contemplating a single theme or priority for 2015 instead of our usual 3-5 major priorities.

Again, I want to thank everyone who participated in my 360 this year – my board, my team, a few “lucky” skip-levels, and my coach Marc Maltz.  The feedback was rich, the experience of observing the conversation was very powerful, and I hope you like where the development plan came out!

Jul 012014

Book Short: Culture is King

Book Short:  Culture is King

Joy, Inc.:  How We Built a Workplace People Love, by Richard Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovations, was a really good read. Like Remote  which I reviewed a few weeks ago, Joy, Inc. is ostensibly a book about one thing — culture — but is also full of good general advice for CEOs and senior managers.

Also like Remote, the book was written by the founder and CEO of a relatively small firm that is predominately software engineers, so there are some limitations to its specific lessons unless you adapt them to your own environment. Unlike Remote, though, it’s neither preachy nor ranty, so it’s a more pleasant read.  And I suppose fitting of its title, a more joyful read as well. (Interestingly on this comparison, Sheridan has a simple and elegant argument against working remotely in the middle of the book around innovation and collaboration.)

Some of the people-related practices at Sheridan’s company are fascinating and great to read about. In particular, the way the company interviews candidates for development roles is really interesting — more of an audition than an interview, with candidates actually writing code with a development partner, the way the company writes code. Different teams at Return Path interview in different ways, including me for both the exec team and the Board, but one thing I know is that when an interview includes something that is audition-like, the result is much stronger. There are half a dozen more rich examples in the book.

Some of the other quotable lines or concepts in the book include:

  • the linkage between scalability with human sustainability (you can’t grow by brute force, you can only grow when people are rested and ready to bring their brain to work)
  • “Showcasing your work is accountability in action” (for a million reasons, starting with pride and ending with pride)
  • “Trust, accountability, and results — these get you to joy” (whether or not you are a Myers-Briggs J, people do get a bit of a rush out of a job well done)
  • “…the fun and frivolity of our whimsically irreverent workplace…” (who doesn’t want to work for THAT company?)
  • “When even your vendors want to align with your culture, you know you’re on the right path” (how you treat people is how you treat PEOPLE, not just clients, not just colleagues)
  • “One of the key elements of a joyful culture is having team members who trust one another enough to argue” (if you and I agree on everything, one of us is not needed)
  • “The reward is in the attempt” (do you encourage people to fail fast often enough?)
  • “Good problems are good problems for the first five minutes. Then they just feel like regular problems until you solve them” (Amen, Brother Sheridan)

The benefits of a joyful culture (at Return Path, we call it a People-First culture) have long been clear to me. As Sheridan says, we try to “create a culture where people want to come to work every day.” Cultures like ours look soft and squishy from the outside, or to people who have grown up in tough, more traditional corporate environments. And to be fair, the challenge with a culture like ours is keeping the right balance of freedom and flexibility on one side and high performance and accountability on the other. But the reality is that most companies struggle with most of the same issues — the new hire that isn’t working out or the long-time employee who isn’t cutting it any more, the critical path project that doesn’t get done on time, the missed quarter or lost client.  As Sheridan notes though, one key benefit of working at a joyful company is that problems get surfaced earlier when they are smaller…and they get solved collaboratively, which produces better results. Another key benefit, of course, is that if you’re going to have the same problems as everyone else, you might as well have fun while you’re dealing with them.

If you don’t love where you work and wish you did, read Joy, Inc. If you love where you work but see your company’s faults and want to improve them, read Joy, Inc. If you are not in either of the above camps, go find another job!

Jun 182014

Democracy in Action

I went to our local high school gym last night to vote for a smallish ($12mm) school bond issue as well as another proposition I didn’t quite understand about paying for fire alarms in the schools. As is always the case in New York, I was somewhere between amused and appalled that the voting machines are pre-war vintage (possibly Civil, definitely WWI).

But this election was a new experience for me. When I finished voting, I ran into a friend of ours who is on the school board, and he suggested I stick around because the polls were closing, and I’d get to hear the results.

This picture is how the results were tabulated. A woman with a whiteboard yelled across the gym to each of three other volunteers, who yelled back the numbers from each of the three machines. Hand tabulation in 2014. I’m glad the vote wasn’t close!

Voting

Why exactly are we not all voting on the internet by now?

Jun 052014

Book short: Life Isn’t Just a Wiki

Book short:  Life Isn’t Just a Wiki

One of the best things I can say about Remote: Office Not Required,  by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, is that it was short.  That sounds a little harsh – part of what I mean is that business books are usually WAY TOO LONG to make their point, and this one was blessedly short.  But the book was also a little bit of an angry rant against bad management wrapped inside some otherwise good points about remote management.

The book was a particularly interesting read juxtaposed against Simon Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last which I just finished recently and blogged about here, which stressed the importance of face-to-face and in-person contact in order for leaders to most effectively do their jobs and stay in touch with the needs of their organizations.

The authors of Remote, who run a relatively small (and really good) engineering-oriented company, have a bit of an extreme point of view that has worked really well for their company but which, at best, needs to be adapted for companies of other sizes, other employee types, and other cultures.  That said, the flip side of their views, which is the “everyone must be at their cubicle from 9 to 5 each day,” is even dumber for most businesses these days.  As usual with these things, the right answer is probably somewhere in between the extremes, and I was reminded of the African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go farm go together” when I read it.  Different target outcomes, different paths.

I totally agree with the authors around their comments about trusting employees and “the work is what matters.”  And we have a ton of flexibility in our work at Return Path.  With 400 people in the company, I personally spend six weeks over the summer working largely remote, and I value that time quite a bit.  But I couldn’t do it all the time.  We humans learn from each other better and treat each other better when we look at each other face to face.  That’s why, with the amount of remote work we do, we strongly encourage the use of any form of video conferencing at all times.  The importance of what the authors dismiss as “the last 1 or 2% of high fidelity” quality to the conversation is critical.  Being in person is not just about firing and hiring and occasional sync up, it’s about managing performance and building relationships.

Remote might have been better if the authors had stressed the value that they get out of their approach more than ranting against the approaches of others.  While there are serious benefits of remote work in terms of cost and individual productivity (particularly in maker roles), there are serious penalties to too much of it as well in terms of travel, communication burden, misunderstandings, and isolation.  It’s not for everyone.

Thanks to my colleague Hoon Park for recommending this to me.  When I asked Hoon what his main takeaway from the book was, he replied:

The importance of open communication that is archived (thus searchable), accessible (transparent and open to others) and asynchronous (doesn’t require people to be in the same place or even the same “timespace”).  I love the asynchronous communication that the teams in Austin have tried: chatrooms, email lists (that anyone can subscribe to or read the archives of), SaaS project management tools. Others I would love to try or take more advantage of include internal blogs (specifically the P2 and upcoming O2 WordPress themes; http://ma.tt/2009/05/how-p2-changed-automattic/), GitHub pull requests (even for non-code) and a simple wiki.

These are great points, and good examples of the kinds of systems and processes you need to have in place to facilitate high quality, high volume remote work.

May 222014

The 90-Day Reverse Review

The 90-Day Reverse Review

Like a lot of companies, Return Path does a 90-day review on all new employees to make sure they’re performing well, on track, and a good fit.  Sometimes those reviews are one-way from the manager, sometimes they are 360s.

But we have also done something for years now called the 90-Day Reverse Review, which is equally valuable.  Around the same 90-day mark, and unrelated to the regular review process, every new employee gets 30 minutes with a member of the Executive Committee (my direct reports, or me if the person is reporting to someone on my team) where the employee has a chance to give US feedback on how WE are doing.

These meetings are meant to be pretty informal, though the exec running the meeting takes notes and circulates them afterwards.  We have a series of questions we typically ask, and we send them out ahead of time so the employee can prepare.  They are things like:

-Was this a good career move?  Are you happy you’re here?

-How was your onboarding experience?

-How do you explain your job to people outside the company?

-What is the company’s mission, and how does your role contribute to it?

-How do you like your manager?  Your team?

-Do you feel connected to the company?  How is the company’s information flow?

-What has been your proudest moment/accomplishment so far?

-What do you like best about the company?

-If you could wave a wand and change something here, what would it be?

We do these for a few reasons:

-At the 90-day mark, new employees know enough about the company to give good input, and they are still fresh enough to see the company through the lens of other places they’ve worked

-These are a great opportunity for executives to have a “Moment of Truth” with new employees

-They give employees a chance to productively reflect on their time so far and potentially learn something or make some course correction coming out of it

-We always learn things, large or small, that are helpful for us as a management team, whether something needs to be modified with our Onboarding program, or whether we have a problem with a manager or a team or a process, or whether there’s something great we can steal from an employee’s past experiences

This is a great part of our Operating System at Return Path!

May 082014

Book Short: Like Reading a Good Speech

Book Short:  Like Reading a Good Speech

Leaders Eat Last, by Simon Sinek, is a self-described “polemic” that reads like some of the author’s famous TED talks and other speeches in that it’s punchy, full of interesting stories, has some attempted basis in scientific fact like Gladwell, and wanders around a bit.  That said, I enjoyed the book, and it hit on a number of themes in which I am a big believer – and it extended and shaped my view on a couple of them.

Sinek’s central concept in the book is the Circle of Safety, which is his way of saying that when people feel safe, they are at their best and healthiest.  Applied to workplaces, this isn’t far off from Lencioni’s concept of the trust foundational layer in his outstanding book, Five Dysfunctions of a Team.  His stories and examples about the kinds of things that create a Circle of Safety at work (and the kinds of things that destroy them) were very poignant.  Some of his points about how leaders set the tone and “eat last,” both literally and figuratively, are solid.  But his most interesting vignettes are the ones about how spending time face-to-face in person with people as opposed to virtually are incredibly important aspects of creating trust and bringing humanity to leadership.

My favorite one-liner from the book, which builds on the above point and extends it to a corporate philosophy of people first, customer second, shareholders third (which I have espoused at Return Path for almost 15 years now) is

Customers will never love a company unless employees love it first.

A couple of Sinek’s speeches that are worth watching are the one based on this book, also called Leaders Eat Last, and a much shorter one called How Great Leaders Inspire Action.

Bottom line:  this is a rambly book, but the nuggets of wisdom in it are probably worth the exercise of having to find them and figure out how to connect them (or not connect them).

Thanks to my fellow NYC CEO Seth Besmertnik for giving me this book as well as the links to Sinek’s speeches.

 

Apr 242014

Breaking New Ground on Transparency

Breaking New Ground on Transparency

I’ve written a lot over time about our Live 360 process for senior leaders in the business.  (This post is a good one, and it links to a couple earlier ones that are good, as well.)  We take a lot of pride in feedback and in transparency at Return Path, and after 15 years, even for an innovative business, it’s unusual that we do something big for the first time around people.  But we did today.

This image is of something never seen before at our company.  It’s my own handwritten notes about my own Live 360.

360 notes

It’s never been seen before, because no one has ever been physically present for his or her own review before.  In previous reviews, my Board, my exec team, and a few skip-levels gather in a room for 90 minutes with a facilitator to discuss my performance and behaviors.  Then the facilitator would go away and write up notes, and discuss them with me, then I’d produce a development plan.

Today, we decided to experiment with having me sit in my own review to add to the transparency and directness of the feedback.  My only role was to listen, ask (non-judgmental) clarifying questions, and take notes.  I left the room at the end in case someone wanted to say something without me hearing it directly, but although the conversation about the business continued, it didn’t sound like there was anything material about me that surfaced.

It was a little awkward at first, and it was interesting that some people addressed me directly while others spoke of me in the third person.  But once we got past that, the experience was incredibly powerful for me.  The first part — the “what do you appreciate about Matt” part — was humbling and embarrassing and gratifying all at the same time.

The meat of the review, though — the “how can we coach Matt on areas where he needs development” — was amazing.  I got great insights into a couple of major areas of work that I need to do, and that we need to do as a business.  I’m guessing I would have gotten them out of reading a summary of the review conversation, but hearing the texture of the conversation was much, much richer than reading a sanitized version of it on paper.  As always with reviews, there was the odd comment or two that annoyed me, but I felt like I handled them well without any defensive body language or facial expressions.

I will, as I’ve always done, post my development plan to my blog after I formulate it over the course of the next few weeks.  But for now, I just want to thank my Board and team for their awesomely constructive feedback and for helping us usher in a new era of increased transparency here.

Apr 102014

Understanding the Drivers of Success

Understanding the Drivers of Success

Although generally business is great at Return Path  and by almost any standard in the world has been consistently strong over the years, as everyone internally knows, the second part of 2012 and most of 2013 were not our finest years/quarters.  We had a number of challenges scaling our business, many of which have since been addressed and improved significantly.

When I step back and reflect on “what went wrong” in the quarters where we came up short of our own expectations, I can come up with lots of specific answers around finer points of execution, and even a few abstracted ones around our industry, solutions, team, and processes.  But one interesting answer I came up with recently was that the reason we faltered a bit was that we didn’t clearly understand the drivers of success in our business in the 1-2 years prior to things getting tough.  And when I reflect back on our entire 14+ year history, I think that pattern has repeated itself a few times, so I’m going to conclude there’s something to it.

What does that mean?  Well, a rising tide — success in your company — papers over a lot of challenges in the business, things that probably aren’t working well that you ignore because the general trend, numbers, and success are there.  Similarly, a falling tide — when the going gets a little tough for you — quickly reveals the cracks in the foundation.

In our case, I think that while some of our success in 2010 and 2011 was due to our product, service, team, etc. — there were two other key drivers.  One was the massive growth in social media and daily deal sites (huge users of email), which led to more rapid customer acquisition and more rapid customer expansion coupled with less customer churn.  The second was the fact that the email filtering environment was undergoing a change, especially at Gmail and Yahoo, which caused more problems and disruption for our clients’ email programs than usual — the sweet spot of our solution.

While of course you always want to make hay while the sun shines, in both of these cases, a more careful analysis, even WHILE WE WERE MAKING HAY, would have led us to the conclusion that both of those trends were not only potentially short-term, but that the end of the trend could be a double negative — both the end of a specific positive (lots of new customers, lots more market need), and the beginning of a BROADER negative (more customer churn, reduced market need).

What are we going to do about this?  I am going to more consistently apply one of our learning principles, the Post-Mortem  -THE ART OF THE POST-MORTEM, to more general business performance issues instead of specific activities or incidents.  But more important, I am going to make sure we do that when things are going well…not just when the going gets tough.

What are the drivers of success in your business?  What would happen if they shifted tomorrow?

Filed under: Business, Return Path

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Mar 262014

Book Short: Internet Fiction

Book Short:  Internet Fiction

It’s been a long time since I read Tom Evslin’s Hackoff.com, which Tom called a “blook” since he released it serially as a blog, then when it was all done, as a bound book.  Mariquita and I read it together and loved every minute of it.  One post I wrote about it at the time was entitled Like Fingernails on a Chalkboard.

The essence of that post was “I liked it, but the truth of the parts of the Internet bubble that I lived through were painful to read,” applies to two “new” works of Internet fiction that I just plowed through this week, as well.

Uncommon Stock

Eliot Pepper’s brand new startup thriller, Uncommon Stock, was a breezy and quick read that I enjoyed tremendously. It’s got just the right mix of reality and fantasy in it. For anyone in the tech startup world, it’s a must read. But it would be equally fun and enjoyable for anyone who likes a good juicy thriller.

Like my memory of Hackoff, the book has all kinds of startup details in it, like co-founder struggles and a great presentation of the angel investor vs. VC dilemma. But it also has a great crime/murder intrigue that is interrupted with the book’s untimely ending.  I eagerly await the second installment, promised for early 2015.

The Circle

While not quite as new, The Circle  has been on my list since it came out a few months back and since Brad’s enticing review of it noted that:

The Circle  was brilliant. I went back and read a little of the tech criticism and all I could think was things like “wow – hubris” or “that person could benefit from a little reflection on the word irony”… We’ve taken Peter Drucker’s famous quote “‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” to an absurd extreme in the tech business. We believe we’ve mastered operant conditioning through the use of visible metrics associated with actions individual users take. We’ve somehow elevated social media metrics to the same level as money in the context of self-worth.

So here’s the scoop on this book.  Picture Google, Twitter, Facebook, and a few other companies all rolled up into a single company.  Then picture everything that could go wrong with that company in terms of how it measures things, dominates information flow, and promotes social transparency in the name of a new world order.  This is Internet dystopia at its best – and it’s not more than a couple steps removed from where we are.  So fiction…but hardly science fiction.

The Circle  is a lot longer than Uncommon Stock and quite different, but both are enticing reads if you’re up for some internet fiction.

 

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